Ben Falk TEDx Talk: Homestead Resiliency, Food Systems Regeneration

Wendy S. Delmater
By Wendy S. Delmater on Thu, Jan 22, 2015 - 2:36pm

If this does not inspire you. I will eat my hat. This is a short TED talk by a Vermont homesteder/small farmer who grows most of his own food and rice (yes - rice) on a piece of marginal land.


LeanneBaker's picture
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Thanks, Wendy. 

Doug's picture
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Thanks Wendy

This guy's good and lives in an environment close to and similar to mine.  I had no idea I could do so much.


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What a fantastic TedTalk, Wendy!

Thanks for sharing!  Truly inspirational (and educational)! 

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David Allan
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Good tap on the shoulder

Great video Wendy, this is a firm tap on the shoulder for me to persevere with my rice growing efforts. We do grow much of our own food but most grains have me beat. The birds get the wheat and oats (even with netting) and my dry bed rice succumbed to drought and weeds. I guess I need to make a dedicated paddy area and do it properly.

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I love the work that Ben

I love the work that Ben does.  His book is also excellent.  I have just a bit of skepticism on the finance side though.  I'd love to see examples of permaculture inspired farms like his and Lawton's without the additional revenue streams from books, speaking, permaculture design courses, and an army of willing interns.

Don't get me wrong, I think permaculture as a design science is the answer.  But the PDC course I completed from Lawton had nothing about the financial aspect of it.  

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Homestead Bootstrapping and Finances

This was a great read. I finished it the other night. I too was hoping to find some information on how he financed his endeavor. Presumably he was broke out of grad school. I didn't see any mention in his book about how he achieved this. Ben talks a lot about how important money/capital is and how it should be invested in the land, but doesn't tell us about his money. How did he start company, afford the tools and equipment, finance the house and land, and build new structures, all at a relatively young age? I understand he is doing well now, but I want to know about his early years.

Good land is expensive. Traditionally people working the land are tenant farmers (serfs), while the land holders are companies/investors (nobles). Ben touches on this in his book. Given that most Americans enter college to pursue higher education and therefore accrue enormous debts, how do the millennials get started if not as serfs? I've yet to see a permaculture/homestead author tackle this subject. I'm frustrated and can't understand why this information is kept so close to the chest. I took a permaculture design course this year and I couldn't get much of any financial advice from the instructor. Given that pursuing a resilient homestead requires some serious capital investment and eventual abandonment of conventional employment/lifestyle, I think it should be a topic covered in some detail.

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Permaculture Finances

The finance side is definitely something that needs explored in greater detail in permaculture circles.  I've cobbled together a few threads of thought on the subject, though -- especially as someone trying to get a permaculture-based business off the ground myself.

First, I think that we need to adopt a mindset along the lines of that proposed by Ethan Roland, owner of Appleseed Permaculture (and guest instructor at my first PDC), The Eight Forms of Capital.  This is not to say that we should ignore in any way the financial side of things, but it's also important to realize that opening our understanding of the definition of "capital" opens up different forms of it that may be able to be leveraged more than financial capital.

Second, Geoff Lawton has been very clear that his farm in Australia is designed to be a research and teaching farm, not a purely "productive" farm enterprise.  I've heard him state directly that if his farm were about profitability from the farming enterprise alone, it would be run in a very different manner (i.e. he would not have interns doing the vast majority of the work).  Based on reading his book, I think that Ben Falk's place is meant to be a homestead, not a farm.  His main goal is to provide for a majority of his own needs, food-wise, from his own land in a regenerative manner.  The land is not supposed to be profitable, but self-sustaining.

Third, the disconnect between the vast number of farmers reaching (or past) retirement age and the younger people wanting to get into farming is one of the conundrums that needs to be solved in our society -- mainly because the retiring farmers have what the younger folks need, and that is land.  As Galen Chadwick of the Farm Resettlement Congress (check out his interview on The Survival Podcast) has pointed out, we are on the precipice of one of the largest transfers of wealth in history vis-a-vis farmland.

Fourth, there are actually some practitioners out there who have shown how to make the finance of permaculture-based farming work.  Mark Shepard is the first name that comes to mind -- he has been doing it for over 20 years on his New Forest Farm in Wisconsin.  Greg Judy is another -- he started cell grazing cattle on leased land with barely two nickels in his pocket to rub together, and now makes a damned good living off of it (see his Green Pastures Farm).  Then there is Stefan Sobkowiak in Quebec, the subject of the film The Permaculture Orchard and owner of Miracle Farms.  In short, there are models out there to demonstrate how to do it, but it is not easy and takes some considerable time.

Fifth, we need to abandon this mindset of a farming enterprise itself providing all of the financial income that we need to survive.  This is where I disagree with your criticism that Lawton didn't go into finances in his PDC.  I just finished it this spring, and I think he did go into it.  First and foremost, we cannot embrace a design science like permaculture that looks at complex systems and apply a monoculture approach to the economics/finance side of things.  We need multiple revenue streams and enterprises -- one maybe that we get 50% of our income from, and another 3-5 enterprises making up the other 50%.  We need to court financial capital from well-off folks who are actually interested in actively investing in their communities. 

Using myself as an example -- I'm a licensed civil engineer and have completed 2 PDCs.  I do have the benefit of a professional training that has focused on stormwater, water supplies and wastewater, which I'm looking to leverage toward a permaculture-based enterprise, providing consulting services to other local engineers and builders as well as local homeowners.  I know that this will only pay a fraction of the money that my current gig as a F/T consulting engineer on water/wastewater projects pays.  But I'm also looking at stacking functions like creating high-quality, aerobic compost for sale (I currently make 1 CY every 3-4 weeks in my spare time, but could ramp that up considerably if it were part of my actual livelihood), and growing nursery stock from cuttings.  Both of these would then be services/products that I could extend to other clients.  I'm also networking with a local greenhouse/CSA that works along permaculture lines, with the idea that we could generate business for each other.  I'm also thinking that many of the relationships that I would build within my community would help to pick up the slack of financial capital by increasing my social capital exponentially.

In short, we need to think outside the box when we're looking at things through the permaculture lens.  This applies to finance/economics just as much as it does with food production systems.

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Good post CAH.  My greatest challenge has been creating sufficient compost to feed our crops (garden is probably a more accurate term).  I have two compost bins about 3'x3'x3' (cy) that I alternate cooking and filling, plus a couple piles, one containing straw and the chickens' donations and the other tougher more fibrous plants that we have been adding to for years.  We've recently discovered the latter is a good place to plant zuchs and pumpkins that take up a lot of room and we don't need much production.  The problem is finding enough compostable stuff to fill the bins on a regular basis.  Any ideas would be welcome.

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Christopher H
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Finding ingredients for compost

Hi Doug,

If you happen to live in a town or suburban area, there are multitudes of waste streams that you could tap into to make compost.  In the town that I live near, when people would bag up their leaves in the fall and put them at the curb, I would drive around and pick up as many of those bags as I could.  Then I dumped them out and shredded them up with my push mower, and piled up the leaf litter for future use.  Now I don't go into town so much for that, only because it's a 5-mile trip one way, and I have a neighbor across the road who gives me as many leaves as I can physically drag over to my house in a tarp.

Check with local grocery stores and health food stores for what they do with expired produce/food.  I'm in a rural, agricultural area, so all of that goes to pig and chicken farmers.  But if you're in the suburbs, it might be a different story.

I also let an area in the front of my house grow long, and scythe it down several times a summer.  This provides bedding for my chicken tractor, which is then turned out after a week of them manuring it and put as the bottom layer of a new compost pile.

Look around for local farms as well to tap into their manure.  This is a riskier proposition than in the past, due to the proliferation of Roundup-ready alfalfa in hay, but if you find a source that is "clean" then it's a veritable gold mine.  I found a horse stable locally that has a manure pile literally bigger than my house.

I also take a Rubbermaid bin into work for co-workers to put their food scraps and the multitude of coffee grounds, then take that home and use it for my compost pile.  Every week or two I switch the bin out with an emptied one.

I also bag a good portion of my lawn clippings, and add them to the compost pile.  I either let them sit and "cure" for a while before adding to turn them "brown," or throw them in as-is for more "green".

Right now I'm starting to run low on "brown" material, so I'm eyeing the reeds that grow along lowland areas and roadside ditches around me.  I figure that with a scythe or grass knife, I could harvest a truckload of that material in short order, bring it home and lay it out to dry, and then shred it up with the lawn mower and pile it up.

I guess the short answer is to just look around you and do a survey of waste streams or free resources in your area, and then put in the time/effort necessary to harvest it.

I was previously doing the Berkeley method for composting, but am now doing something closer to Geoff Lawton's "Chicken Tractor on Steroids".  If you check out his website,, and sign up with your email address, you can access all of his free videos.  Well worth it, and he only sends out messages when he puts up a new video or is getting ready to offer another online PDC.  Geoff's design is based off of Karl Hammer's Vermont Compost Company, just on a much smaller scale.  I can envision a booming market for something like Hammer's operation in my community, even on a fraction of the scale, leveraging chickens' natural behavior (scratching, pecking, pooping) to create high-quality compost while producing large quantities of healthy, high-quality eggs and meat.

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The upper middle class

I understand your frustration.  I think that Ben represents a different demographic than the medieval serfs and lords of times past. He has mentioned in interviews that he grew up in the suburbs and that his father is a physician. He was originally on track to becoming an architect in college but changed course and chose landscape architecture instead.  He has a very successful permaculture design business because it is a professional landscape architecture business with an emphasis on permaculture. 

As to how he got his start I have a few assumptions.  I took his PDC last year and was fortunate enough to meet his parents who are very nice people!  It was obvious that he has a close relationship with them.  They, in fact, own the 2nd property where he now holds his PDCs and where his interns live and work.  Based on my experience growing up in an upper-middle-class household, I would not be surprised if he graduated college without debt and received financial help when he bought his first home.  If this were the case, should we fault him for it?  Isn't the existence of working-class, middle-class, and upper-middle-class something we value as a culture?  I think it's just a rare occurrence to see the upper-middle class in permaculture because there are less and less people in this demographic as the wealth gap expands. Also, many of them are off busy becoming doctors and lawyers... and architects. 

I say props to Ben!  His values led him down a path where instead of living in a McMansion and driving the newest Range Rover he created an amazing 10 acre homestead (slate roof and copper gutters included)!


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